"He hauled in a half-parsec of immaterial relatedness and began ineptly to experiment."
-James Tiptree Jr.
February 16. Negative links, starting with three from Reddit. This comment explains in detail Why NFTs are bad. For me, the key insight about NFTs is that the technology serves famous artists and criminals, and does nothing for unknown poor artists.
A long comment thread on Ask Old People, Do you think America is in decline?
Also from Ask Old People, an insightful comment about common sense. I've been thinking there's no such thing as common sense. It's just a way for people to say that their own perspective should be obvious to everyone. But DerHoggenCatten argues that "life has become much more complex, diverse, and difficult," so there's less common ground of experience for people to see things the same way.
A good analysis, CGI did, in fact, ruin movies. The author argues that filmmakers have become lazy, using computers to brute-force the exact shots they want, instead of having to be creative to wrangle with the constraints of the real physical world. I would add, I don't see a problem with computers being used for pure animation. My favorite superhero movie is Lego Batman. And yet, the best animated movie of this century is Mary and Max, which used old-fashioned clay.
Another good analysis, The web starts on page four is about how money has ruined search engines.
Related: this Hacker News thread is about Douglas Adams's prediction, back in 1998, that the internet would make advertising more effective. Now it's becoming clear that advertising "is a fundamentally bad thing", so the better it gets, the worse it gets.
February 15. Continuing from yesterday, Matt comments:
One practice I like for heart-based meditation is Zen Noting. It's a noting practice that follows the form "As ____, there is ____."
So, you could drop any kind of love word in the first blank, and then in the second blank you just note whatever happens to be in your experience at that moment. For instance, "As friendliness, there is releasing my shoulders."
The point isn't to force yourself to feel whatever you put in the first blank, but to open to experiencing from that theme. The point is embracing whatever arises while you're inviting that condition of consciousness. So you might be noting boredom, irritation, itching, anger, etc., but you continually position yourself within the "as if" of some loving attitude.
The as if can become the is.
February 14. For Valentine's Day, I want to write about "love". I put it in quotes because it's a classic propaganda word: everyone agrees whether it's good or bad (in this case, good) but nobody has a clear definition. We all know that it points to multiple things, and that the ancient Greeks had six words for it, but we mostly ignore that while throwing the one word around.
Specifically I'm thinking of people who have transcendent experiences, with or without drugs, and come back and say that love is the most important thing in the universe. I want to ask them how they would express that insight without using the word "love", but to give a good answer, someone would have to be really good with words. One of the few people who did a lot of drugs and was good with words was Thaddeus Golas. In his classic book The Lazy Man's Guide to Enlightenment he gave the best definition of love I've seen: "Love is the action of being in the same space with other beings."
I like how he defines it as an action and not a feeling. What I'm looking for is something that anyone can practice. But "being in the same space with other beings" requires some metaphorical imagination. It doesn't even make sense under materialist philosophy.
If I strip the word down to its minimum meaning, love is 1) feeling good 2) about something outside the self. That seems to leave out self-love, unless you consider that the subject and object of self-love are two different people inside you. As Nietzsche said, "Whoever despises himself still respects himself as one who despises."
I think what psychonauts are getting at is: the self is an illusion, and love is breaking that illusion so that being has no boundaries. But again, how does one practice that?
This is what I've come up with. Love is feeling good about placing your attention. It's not feeling good about the thing you're placing your attention on, because what about genocide? But even if it's something bad, you can still feel good about the action of touching it with your consciousness. The idea is, as you move your attention around, your attention is not dragging its feet, or stomping enemies, but dancing.
February 11. Today's subject is mental health. A few months back, someone suggested that my emotional pain could be rooted in physical pain. I said, no way. Physical pain doesn't even bother me that much. I'd rather bash my shin on a table than feel anxiety, and I suspect that's why people cut themselves, to cover their inscrutable emotional pain with honest and real physical pain.
But now, after more self-observation, I see that it's true: emotions are rooted in the body, and when I'm in a bad mood, it's not from physical pain exactly, but general physical discomfort. Nine times out of ten, it's simple dehydration, and if I guzzle a quart of water and wait 30 minutes, I feel fine. It turns out that what I was calling "cannabis withdrawal" was a combination of dehydration and feedback: feeling bad about feeling bad. Now that I'm managing both, I can get high more often with no downside, although I'm still averaging less than one session a day.
In the past I've criticized "meditation", and I still believe that one specific practice -- sitting, focusing on your breath, and stilling your thoughts -- is overrated, and holds a monopoly over the vast range of metacognitive practices. Personally I do better walking than sitting. But any metacognitive practice is going to eventually pay off. More precisely, any way of building a perspective in your head that watches, in a curious and non-judging way, what your head and body are doing, is going to serve as a foundation for better mental health.
I've also found that the key is at the micro scale. If there's a way you want to feel all the time, the path is to feel that way now, in the thinnest slice of time, about the smallest thing.
February 9. One more thought from Monday. It's hard to imagine mining ever being done by volunteers. But now most of the mining has been done. There are plenty of reusable resources on the surface, or lightly buried in landfills. And picking through scraps for useful stuff is totally something people will do for fun.
In 2008, a guy tried to make a toaster from scratch, including smelting metal from ore. It turned out to be much easier to make a toaster out of parts of broken toasters. My point is, even if we get a deep tech crash, post-industrial technology will be radically different from pre-industrial technology.
Related: A makeshift submarine using IKEA food container and legos
February 7. Continuing from Friday, a "100% volunteer workforce" is my new way of describing the kind of society I want to live in. You could also call it "zero coercion" or "non-repressive" or "emergent" -- because everything that's done emerges from whatever people find intrinsically enjoyable. But I think "100% volunteer" gets to the heart of the difficult thing we're aiming for.
And yet, it's actually been done multiple times. And here, the worst move you can make is to look for some broad category that includes the societies that have done it -- whether you call them "primitive" or "low-tech" or "nature-based" or "indigenous" or "non-civilized" -- and argue that all we have to do is join that club, and we'll be happy.
On a practical level, that's just not true, and on an intellectual level, all the naysayers have to do is look through your category until they find one terrible tribe, and say, "Ha, you lose! Now go back to stocking shelves at Walmart."
A better move, which is made easier by Graeber and Wengrow's book, is to say, "The people who did that thing are human. We're human. So we can do it."
Now someone is going to point out that none of those people had airplanes or video games, and if we want the benefits of high technology, our society must force people to do stuff they don't want to do. I've found that it's not helpful to tell my adversaries what motivates them, but I'll say this: of all the reasons someone might choose to believe that high tech requires repression, love of high tech is not one of them.
Right now there are amateur enthusiasts in basements and garages doing all kinds of cool high tech stuff. On a practical level, we're a long way from making that culture the heart of our society. But there's general agreement that that's the direction we want to go. The most cynical corporate consultant knows that you can't brute-force creativity -- it comes out of social spaces with a lot of slack.
Going back to my January 31 post, about technologies needing the right context, Iphikrates wrote: "Plunk a fully functioning steam engine down in Bronze Age Mesopotamia and I guarantee you that absolutely nothing will happen." What we're aiming for is a social technology, in which you can plunk down a person whose spirit has not been broken, doing whatever they feel like, and they will find a niche that serves the system.
February 4. So I'm finally reading David Graeber and David Wengrow's book The Dawn of Everything. This Goodreads review summarizes some of the main points, and this is how the book summarizes itself in chapter 1:
If humans did not spend 95 percent of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what did they imply? What was really happening in those periods we usually see as marking the emergence of 'the state'? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful possibilities, than we tend to assume.The most interesting bit I've read so far is about how prehistoric people were able to move small physical items across continents, without capitalist trade networks. One way they did it was to invest the items themselves with great meaning. People made small works of art and went on long quests to trade them for other works of art.
February 2. A few links. Canopy "is a game in which two players compete to grow the most bountiful rainforest." I don't know how fun it is, but there's a lot of room to make more games like this.
104 Mesmerizing Mosque Ceilings. Yeah, the people who made these were totally tripping.
And Reality by Consensus is a fascinating thought experiment, about what the world would be like if it filled itself in on the fly, based on our expectations and desires. I like to think reality is already like that, and for some reason we're all in a very sticky neighborhood. This subject reminds me of a quote from Terence McKenna: "It's a delusion if it happens to one person. It's a cult if it happens to twenty people. And it's true if it happens to ten thousand people. Well this is a strange way to have epistemological authenticity... We vote on it?"
January 31. Thanks MakeTotalDestr0i for posting this great thread to Weird Collapse: In pc games like Civilization, technology is portrayed as linear and progressive, i.e., once something is invented, it stays invented. In light of history, is that a generally correct representation?
The short answer is no, and in the top comment, Iphikrates explains why:
To put it simply, technology is practice. It does not emerge or exist outside of its practical application within a society, economy, or culture. It is not pursued or preserved for its own sake. It has no intrinsic value. A given technology either has a use (in which case it may be developed and passed on) or it doesn't.
Also from Iphikrates, this comment from six months ago explains it in more detail:
...technology is only one element of industrialisation, and arguably not even a causal one. The process doesn't happen because of new tech; new tech is invented to facilitate the process. The actual causes have more to do with the availability of certain resources (capital, labour, ingenuity) to meet certain economic and political challenges within a global network of trade and colonialism. Without this complex system of factors in place, industrialisation could never have happened anywhere. Plunk a fully functioning steam engine down in Bronze Age Mesopotamia and I guarantee you that absolutely nothing will happen.
There are several directions I can go with this. One is to notice that the same thing can happen with cultural technologies: ways of thinking and perceiving, ways of being human, that only develop in certain conditions.
But today I'm thinking about the fate of mechanical technologies in a general collapse. With the infrastructure decaying, it's easy to extrapolate to a world where all bridges have fallen. Really, the skillsets for building and repairing bridges will be in high demand everywhere. So those skills will not die out -- but places that can't compete for bridge-builders will lose their bridges.
Historically, complex technologies start in places with dense populations, and work their way out to the sticks. So the present collapse -- with some exceptions -- will go the other way. Rural areas will become postapocalyptic, and well-managed cities will muddle through.
So what counts as a "city"? John Mellencamp's song "Small Town", which romanticizes a lot of terrible hellholes, was actually written about Bloomington Indiana, a city of 80,000 people, the same as ancient Thebes at its peak.
My point is, in the coming decades, there will be huge local variation in quality of life, and some of the best places will be smaller cities with a high proportion of educated people.
January 29. Music for the weekend, starting with this incredible 1959 instrumental, Jet Tone Boogie by the Jet Tones.
So Neil Young just took his music off Spotify. I don't use Spotify for listening, because they're missing too much of my favorite stuff, including four of my top five songs of all time. I buy the music of my favorite artists, download everything else with Soulseek, and then listen to mp3 files from my laptop or from an old Sansa Clip player.
I'm not a huge Neil Young fan, but I remember about 20 years ago, he said that CD's sound bad compared to vinyl, and everyone thought he was crazy, but now CD's are dead and vinyl is back. Anyway, via YouTube, these are my top three Neil Young songs: Helpless (1970), Powderfinger (1978), and Love and Only Love (1990)
January 26. One of the best things you can do for your mental health, is to look for things that you don't enjoy doing, and don't actually have to do, and stop doing those things. A trivial example is socks. I don't even try to match them anymore -- I just stuff them all in a bag, and pull out any two black ones.
A more serious example is arguing on the internet. I used to take for granted that if you have an audience and a strong opinion, you say it. Now I've basically retired from saying anything on any subject where people will get mad if you disagree with them.
It's funny how times have changed. I've written stuff about God that would get me burned at the stake in the 1600's. In the 2000's, "God" is a big-tent word -- whatever it means to you, you're in. This seems like progress in religious tolerance, but only because the word "religion" points to two different things: 1) beliefs about the unseeable world, and 2) beliefs that anchor your identity and meaning of life.
The word "religion" has stuck with the first thing, while the second thing, the tribalistic fervor about how things are, has shifted from the divine to the mundane.
I think this is what we wanted all along. Only now do we have the speed of information to keep tabs on the physical world, and the breadth of interpretation to disagree about stuff that you can actually look at.
January 24. Continuing from last week, on the speculation that future humans will take different drugs all day, to fit what they're doing. That has already happened. People drink coffee in the morning and take melatonin before bed. We get drunk or high to party, and athletes take whatever performance enhancing drugs they can get away with. The reason steroids are forbidden, is that if everyone does them, the whole baseline shifts, and then everyone has to use a substance that's bad for them in the long term.
But again, that already happened with cigarettes, which make a lot of service industry jobs tolerable. I wonder if that's part of why so many people are quitting their jobs now, because the jobs were designed in a context of near-universal cigarette use, and non-smokers can't put up with that shit.
Imagine a drug that gives you microsecond reaction time, so everyone takes it for driving, and then we can greatly increase speed limits with only a small increase in traffic deaths. Then you have to take the drug every time you drive, or you'll crash. That's the kind of mistake we have to watch out for, as we develop better drugs.
There's a third way that technology can claim to improve our perception: augmented reality. And if I'm trying to build a dystopia, augmented reality is a lot more exciting than VR and drugs. If China could afford it, they would already have everyone walking around with a headset, showing everyone else's social credit score. Augmented reality is an overlay of stories, about whatever you're looking at, where those stories are told by whoever controls the technology.
January 20. Two new articles on virtual reality. When art transports us, where do we actually go? It's a good question, but the answers are just a bunch of fancy language for stuff that should be obvious. Conclusion: immersive experiences are valuable for how they change us when we come back to the real world.
It's hard to say anything on this subject that's both correct and interesting. This article starts with something interesting but incorrect: Virtual reality is genuine reality, says philosopher David Chalmers. Then he backs off and says, yeah, we still have to respect the physical world.
Even professional philosophers struggle to define "real". Real is other people, whether they be humans, cats, or entities that we can't understand from our tiny perspective. Real is a direction of consciousness, toward the relationships that connect the illusory self to the Universal. Real is turning outward, and unreal is turning inward to our own creations: dreams and nightmares, gardens and prisons, video games and cryptocurrencies.
I love video games. I wish I could step into the world of Legend of Zelda Wind Waker, and cross the edge of that game into an infinite world with the same vibe. And maybe somewhere there is a real world with that vibe. But you can't get there through a game.
It's possible right now to make a game that teaches basic ecology better than a real forest. But at some point you have to go to a real forest if you want to keep learning. That's why future humans are not going to spend their whole lives in VR, tied by a thread to the physical world.
I don't think we have a lot of room to go deeper into artificiality than we already are. The next frontier is not packing more pixels into our vidscreens, or hacking our brains to sense what's not there. The next frontier is hacking our brains to sense what is there, better -- or through a different filter.
My favorite thing to do is take a walk in the non-human-made world, on drugs. Then I take the same walk sober, and I'm like, damn, sobriety sucks. Human default cognition is great for general purpose use. You can drive, do your job, make dinner, read a book, whatever. But for almost any specific purpose, there is a better cognitive mode, if we can get there.
January 17. No ideas this week, but some of you will like this article, "Home-Free" Man Lives in Sheep-Drawn Covered Wagon, Thrives on Mostly Milk and Wild Edibles. And here's his YouTube channel, 123Homefree.
Loosely related: Station Eleven: Where the end of the world is a vibrant, lush green. This reminds me of something I wrote back in 2008, in a brief review of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road:
In reality, if there are dead trees, there will be grubs and insects eating the wood, and if there are dead humans, or living humans leaving shit, there will be flies, and if there are insects, there will be birds eating them, and feral cats eating the birds, and coyotes eating the cats. If there is enough sunlight to scan distant cities with binoculars, there will be enough for plants adapted to living in dense forests. There will be mosses, lichens, beetles, earthworms, and crows. McCarthy has excluded all these creatures for purely literary reasons.
January 14. Continuing from yesterday, Nightwalking is a classic article about the practice of walking around at night, without artificial light, focusing only on your peripheral vision. What I wrote the other day, whether or not it's true, is not a new idea. This was written in 1991: "Fear, anxiety and even physical pain are seemingly associated with focused vision, while peripheral processes engender relaxation and delight."
Last night I walked around shifting between soft and hard looking, and I noticed that it's easy to go suddenly from soft to hard, and then gradually from hard to soft, but it's difficult to do it the other way around.
Also, a reader comments: "You talk about attention, motivation, and focused awareness a lot, but you don't often talk about ADHD which is a biological dysregulation in controlling these things."
Yeah, I don't feel qualified to write about ADHD, because I basically have only one symptom, the one it's named after, that I don't have enough attention to go around for all the things in this world that demand my attention. And I think that's the world, and not me.
January 13. Wow, lots of responses to yesterday's second paragraph. Something I've linked to before, an animated video about Iain McGilchrist and the divided brain.
And Dominic quotes Scott Thybony's book Burntwater: "...the Navajos have two ways of looking at the landscape. One's with hard eyes and the other's with soft eyes. Hard eyes are used when looking for things like game, water, pop machines. Soft eyes are used to take in the beauty of the scene."
January 12. One more note on anxiety, and where the last post was based on science and personal experience, this is mainly speculation. I think that anxiety is correlated with a pattern of attention, in which you're small in space and big in time. For example, you're fixated on a single social media post, worrying that it will ruin your career, which can actually happen. Conversely, you can reduce anxiety by being big in space and small in time: focusing on your full sense experience in this moment.
I have a new exercise, when I'm going for a walk, where I alternate my visual attention between big and small. For a few seconds, I'll focus my mind on my full field of view, periphery to periphery, and then for a few seconds I'll focus on some tiny detail. Something I've noticed is, the big view feels better than the small view, but going small feels better than going big.
January 10. Today's subject is anxiety. Here are two transcripts of interviews with anxiety specialist Judson Brewer, one by Ezra Klein (paywalled) and one by Rich Roll (with transcribed ads).
The basic idea is, anxiety is something that your brain constructs. And the more time you invest in watching your brain in action, the more skill you have in consciously choosing what it does.
There's a lot of discussion of anxiety as a habit, and I've noticed the same thing. I have a physical habit, when I'm stressed out, of blinking my eyes really hard. It must have a genetic basis, because my grandmother did it all the time. The way to fix a physical bad habit, eye-blinking or teeth-grinding or whatever, is to build a meta-habit of noticing that habit, and immediately stopping it. This isn't just something you can decide to do -- you have to practice until you get good at it.
Telling a depressed person to just cheer up, is like telling an out-of-shape person that they can climb Mt. Everest by just walking uphill. That advice vastly underestimates the difficulty, but it's not wrong. One of my favorite sets of lyrics, Camper Van Beethoven's Lulu Land, has the line "How can you lose when you choose what you feel?" Choosing what you feel is probably harder than winning an Olympic gold medal or a Nobel Prize, because people have done those things while still being emotionally unhealthy. But I think it's possible.
Something I did last fall, which was surprisingly helpful for my mental health, was dogsitting with two neurotic dogs for more than two weeks. The way to clean up a dog's behavior is to give it plenty of attention, and the moment it starts to do something you don't like, immediately correct it. How exactly to discipline a dog is a huge subject, with plenty of room for error -- as is correcting your own mental behavior. But they're not that different.
There are TV shows and movies in which a person has multiple people inside their head. That's a valuable metaphor, but what the shows get wrong, to fit the medium, is making the people verbal. The stuff you have to notice, to straighten out your emotions, is pre-verbal. By the time your head is making words, it's too late.